A purity test is a self-graded survey that assesses the participants' supposed degree of innocence in worldly matters (sex, drugs, deceit, and other activities assumed to be vices), generally on a percentage scale with 100% being the most and 0% being the least "pure". Online purity tests were among the earliest of Internet memes, popular on Usenet beginning in the early 1980s. However, similar types of tests circulated under various names long before the existence of the Internet.
The Columbia University humor magazine, The Jester, reported in its October 1935 issue on a campus wide "purity test" conducted at Barnard College in the spring of 1935. The issue of the Jester was briefly censored, with distribution curtailed until the director of activities at the University could review the article. According to the editor-in-chief of the Jester, "We printed the survey to clear up some of the misconceptions that Columbia and the outside world have about Barnard girls," he said. "The results seem to establish that Barnard girls are quite regular. I fail to see anything off-color in the story. It's a sociological study."
In 1936, The Indian Express reported that students at Toronto University were "under-going a 'purity test'", which took "the form of twenty very personal questions, designed to determine the state of their morals and their 'purity ratio'. For example, so many marks are lost for smoking, drinking, and every time the sinner kisses a girl or boy. Then, after truthfully answering all the questions, the total number of 'bad' marks are added up and subtracted from a hundred. What is left, if any, is the 'purity ratio'. The test is unofficial and just what it will prove when completed nobody knows."
Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California, Berkeley, and Carl R. Pagter included examples of purity tests in their 1975 book Work Hard and You Shall Be Rewarded: Urban Folklore from the Paperwork Empire. They noted, "An indication of the particular sexual activities that are valued is provided by various versions of a questionnaire parody entitled 'Virtue Test' or 'Official Purity Test' or the like. It is obviously doubtful whether anyone would answer the questions posed on the test in an honest and truthful fashion. Nevertheless, the questions themselves serve to reveal a good deal about the American male's sexual fantasy life." Dundes and Pagter's book reprints a "Virtue Test" circulated at Indiana University in 1939 and a more contemporary "Official Purity Test" circulated at California Institute of Technology.
In 1976, a teacher at La Grange High School in Texas was fired for distributing a purity test, which had appeared in Ann Landers' column, to her students. The questions on the test ranged from "Ever said 'I love you'?" to "Ever had group sex?" The teacher sued the school district and was awarded $71,000 in back pay and damages.
Most purity tests have possible scores anywhere from 0% to 100%. Purity tests ask numerous personal questions of their users, most commonly about the use of alcohol and illicit substances; sexual acts with members of the opposite or same sex; other illicit or illegal activities, and the above actions in an odd or "kinky" context. These tests typically have anywhere from 50 to 2000 questions.
Many popular purity tests encourage participation in a social situation (one person reading a purity test aloud while others mark down their "yeses" for later tabulation). The tests often acknowledge that some may use them as a checklist for things to do, try, or accomplish.
One of the best-known purity tests is The Unisex Purity Test (or, simply, the Purity Test—note the capitalization). First written sometime before 1980 in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Baker House, the first incarnation had two parallel versions, 100 questions each; one for male, and one for female. The next iteration (247 questions, written at Carnegie Mellon University in the Spring of 1983) heralded the merging of the gendered versions, making it actually unisex. Over the next decade or so, many re-writes and expansions commenced, a 2000-question version being written in the Fall of 1995. In more recent times, versions of the classic Test have been developed for new platforms, such as a Purity Test for the iPhone and as a Facebook application.
- Friedman, Daniel M. Work=Columbia Spectator (1935-10-23). "New Jester Issue is Censored for 45 Minutes by Hubbard". p. 1. Retrieved 2015-09-08.
- "Students Undergo a 'Purity Test'". The Indian Express (Madras). Indian Allied News. 1936-02-08. p. 4. Retrieved 12 December 2010.
- Dundes, Alan; Pagter, Carl R. (1992) . Work Hard and You Shall Be Rewarded: Urban Folklore from the Paperwork Empire. American Folklore Society's Memoir Series 62. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. p. 120. ISBN 978-0-8143-2432-5. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
- Dundes, Alan; Pagter, Carl R. (1992) . Work Hard and You Shall Be Rewarded: Urban Folklore from the Paperwork Empire. American Folklore Society's Memoir Series 62. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. pp. 120–123. ISBN 978-0-8143-2432-5. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
- "Ann Landers Test Gets Teacher Fired". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. UPI. 1980-02-29. p. 9-A. Retrieved 12 December 2010.
- "Teacher wins $71,000 in sex test case". Tri-City Herald. AP. 1980-10-15. p. 5. Retrieved 12 December 2010.
- Linder, Joselin (2009). The Purity Test: Your Filth and Depravity Cheerfully Exposed by 2,000 Nosy Questions. New York: St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 978-0-312-38785-3.